Habib Tanvir’s death an irreparable loss: Theatre fraternity

June 8th, 2009 - 6:09 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, June 8 (IANS) Habib Tanvir was one of the towering personalities of Indian theatre and his death early Monday marks the end of a “people’s era” on Indian stage, say members of the country’s theatre fraternity as they mourn “the irreparable loss”.
Tanvir died at a hospital in Bhopal at about 6.30 a.m. after prolonged illness. The 85-year-old had been admitted to hospital about 20 days ago after developing respiratory problems.

The National School of Drama (NSD) in the capital mourned Tanvir’s death at a 45-minute “commemorative” function where students and members of the NSD’s Repertoire Company and school’s Theatre in Education Company recalled their impressions of Tanvir’s plays.

For most of the students, “Habib saab” was an example in whose footsteps they would like to walk someday, someone who had set new benchmarks in Indian theatre and whose loss was irreparable. NSD will host another condolence meeting post June 12 when it reopens after the summer break.

The professional theatre fraternity described his death as a personal loss.

“I have never met him but I have seen his productions like ‘Charan Das Chor’, ‘Mrichakatika’ and ‘Jisne Lahore Nahin Dekhya’. The loss is very personal… I am terribly sad at the moment,” veteran stage personality Sohag Sen told IANS from Kolkata.

Sen said Tanvir was one of the rare directors who believed in “total theatre that made use of the stage, folk dances, physical acting, music and even silences”.

“He used the stage like magic and inducted even unlettered people from the villages in his cast. The Chhattisgarhi language was no barrier for his theatre was so communicative,” Sen recalled.

Tanvir, born in Raipur in Chhattisgarh in 1923, founded the Naya Theatre company in Bhopal in 1959. He was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1969 and Padma Shri in 1983. He wrote plays based on the folk traditions and tales of Indian heartland like “Agra Bazar” and “Charan Das Chor. He also acted in over nine movies, including Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi”.

Tanvir, who left for London to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in 1955 after a stint in Mumbai, fell back on his Chhattisgarhi roots for his repertoire in India. He was one of the few to have experimented with “Pandavani”, a tradition folk and temple song ritual, and the Chhattisgarhi Naach tradition in his plays.

“But very people in the country know of his contribution to the Indian stage. Now that he is dead, people are curious to know about him. He is the only theatre personality who made plays for the “aam aadmi” or the common man. He could do anything on the stage he felt like and was one of those who could spot talent miles away. I met him at the NSD in 1986,” Mumbai-based veteran stage personality Vineet Kumar told IANS from Ujjain.

One of the pillars of Indian theatre has crumbled, Kumar lamented.

“I met Habib saab at the Indian People’s Theatre Association in Patna in 1989 when he helped produce a play ‘Mukti Purv’ for the Musical Theatre Festival in Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal. I played the lead,” reminisced Mumbai-based actor Manoj Verma, who had worked with the playwright.

Verma’s wish to work with Tanvir was granted when the playwright invited him join the cast of “Agra Bazar”, one of Tanvir’s iconic plays, in 1989-1990.

“We travelled all over the country with the play. It was such a wonderful experience working with ‘Habib saab’ because he was one of those few people who knew the difference between professional and amateur theatre,” Verma said. And ‘Habib saab’ always smiled, he added.

Actor-director Sunit Sinha of Delhi-based theatre company Actor Factor described Tanvir as the rockstar of Indian theatre.

“I had the opportunity to work with him between 1991-1995 when I was part of the Jan Natya Manch co-founded by (late) Safdar Hashmi. He directed a street play on labour rights for us and his word was law. It was a conscious decision on his part to weave folk into contemporary theatre and refine it. He was the most patient director I’ve ever worked for,” Sinha told IANS.

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